Pianos: Agraffes, alloys and art.

Painted agraffes. On many pianos one area (or several) may have agraffes. They're little brass snouts with nostrils through which the strings pass, creating a termination point between the part of the string that sounds (technicians call that the 'speaking length') and the part that does not sound (except possibly sympathetically in certain circumstances). Some pianos have no agraffes at all, some have 88.

The termination points of a string must be as concise as possible. Rust, incorrect angles, deformation of the string itself (or the areas it passes by) may cause compromised sound, loss of energy, confusing aural artefacts and tuning instability.

One might be forgiven for imagining that the inner profile of an agraffe nostril owes much to the snouts of early Disney bovines. In fact, the holes in agraffes are more like the holes in donuts. This provides a focused termination point for the string while still allowing it to move easily when being tuned. 

This is a new agraffe. I've documented its hole. My Nobel Prize nomination for this work is just a matter of time. Back to the painted agraffes, ideally they would have been removed or masked off before the frame (the bloody big gold-coloured thing) was re-gilded. If the agraffes are removed, their screw holes in the frame must be masked off during spray painting. If the original agraffes are to be re-used their holes should be inspected and lightly filed to address any grooves that the strings have created. 

An agraffe-removing tool has been made by adapting a socket fitting. Agraffes are regulated to be firmly tight (while also pointing the right direction) with very thin brass washers. It is important to keep track of these little washers. Keep them with the relevant agraffes and keep the whole lot in order. This way you're not starting all over again when the agraffes are returned. Keep the washers in order even if you are replacing the agraffes. There may be changes, but you won't be starting from scratch.

There is much in piano rebuilding that involves careful measuring of existing situations before anything is removed. Much might be out of adjustment, worn, or wrong, but it is important to know what was there and where.

Even with careful accounting things can get confusing. Methods for organising all manner of screws and crazy widgets are workshop staples. Many reflect practices that are commonplace in the automotive industry. Ikea Man can't help you here.

Another similar tool for agraffe removal. I recommend alternating between the two tools based on which one is hurting your hand the least at any moment. It requires a fair bit of force to undo them, but care must be taken because agraffes can be snapped off if they're really stuck and one goes at it too brutally. An undesired complication.

Forceful brutish wimp sought for honest work. Secure employment for the insecure. I'm squarely in the wimp category, and pissweak as well, but the show must go on, baby.

You can't beat a bichord agraffe for robot cuteness. These were bought for this piano...

Here an agraffe has failed under the load of its pair of strings. This should not happen and never did back when manufacturers had pride and made things to last. Softer alloys may be cheaper and easier to machine, but they will not have the necessary strength or ductility. Many piano factories care more about their bottom line than making functional pianos. All metals are not created equal.

Flat chat. It's heartening to know that not every neighbour slipping a note under the door is a complainy arsehole.

A friend asked my thoughts on this 'mini piano'. I said that any time an upright piano is lower than hip height, step away. If a barista cannot drape his beard atop it from a standing position, it is reasonable to make condemnatory remarks (in one's head). Remarks about what? The piano or the beard?

Selective framing and angles can make the mini piano look almost respectable. It isn't.

In drop-action pianos it is much more difficult to gain the necessary access to the mechanical components to perform maintenance and repairs. Consequently, these teeny pieeni receive disproportionately low levels of servicing, and are barely worthy of what they might receive. 

I'd rather organise the Crazy Cat Lady's cats by colour (in the manner of clothing racks in an op shop) and persuade them to high-step march to a Son Clave rhythm at 140bpm - than remove a drop-action from a piano. 

Any time a piano looks more like a writing desk, it is almost certainly best deployed as one - a writing desk, I mean. Crack open the laptops and crank out those memoirs.

In piano technology school we were taught that the optimum relative humidity to ensure that a piano's jockstrap is never sweaty - is the magical number of 42%. Unless you live in a human humidor, this is impossible, but the essential goal for your piano is to ensure that it is in a protected stable part of the house where the climate does not swing through a wide range of variations. 

Humidity in the mid-range is the key, between 40%-60% with minimal fluctuation. In very low humidity woods dry, shrink and crack. In very high humidity woods, cloths and felts swell, traditional glue joints fail and wires, pins and other metals corrode. 

Pianos are fussy creatures by nature. So am I. I have banned all temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius, not necessarily for pianos - but for me. Yep, 25° is my official cut-off. I need to advise Kim Jong-un, who controls the world's weather. Well, he has persuaded his countryfolk that this is so. 

Here is another squirt of a drop-action piano. Pianos this short deploy rods (stickers) that extend downward from the far end of each key lever to connect each note in the action. 88 rods to disconnect, contain, then re-connect. The action resides down behind the keys, halfway to Mordor. The pitch is usually similarly subterranean. That (the pitch) can and should be addressed.

Some form of wood carving ensures that this piano evokes some sort of torturous jigsaw puzzle. It's a fine line between what aesthetically pleases me in piano cabinetry and what finds me wishing I could include the green-puke emoji in my condition report. I'm never quite sure where I'm drawing the line, but I reserve the right to vacillate.

I don't remember tuning this piano. It would be churlish to suggest that I had had therapy to block it out. I think it may have been in another room in a school where the brief was to tune the more conventional pianos. I don't care for this aesthetic. Wood meets wrought-iron with equal parts Laura Ashley and Laura Ingalls. I stand by my 'yuck'.

In a house whose proportions made my own abode seem miniature, the lovely woodwork here is the floor. A screwdriver still-life I've titled, I'd rather not have to pull the action out of this piano yet again

Another astonishing private house being prepared for a party.

This little piano's journey onto the stage made a compelling argument for fitting it with wheels. The small 'footprint' of such a piano means that an appropriate form of stage truck should be considered. If casters were fitted to each corner of this piano's base, a piano of this type might still be at risk of being toppled during moves. 

These stage trucks extend beyond the base of the piano (front and rear). We'll see how they were fitted in another blog instalment. Stay tuned.

Rustic security on a rustic piano.

A piano's ornate wood features. Even the faded hint of purple doesn't redeem this design for me. I'm not sure why a lyre on a bed of pith helmets fails to entice.

A prettier piece of furniture but let's forget about making music.

It appears that the last technician left in a hurry and the front door had to be replaced.

I couldn't sleep if I had a Steinway under my bed. It was annoying tuning the treble because I couldn't disconnect or move that ladder and had to just shimmy in somehow. 

The Caped Regulators (piano pamperers to the stars... and you) frequent two secret lairs - one in outer suburgatory, the other ruefully rural. That's the wrong 42. Is there any comfort in reflecting that we were only enduring 39 degrees? I called a meeting to propose we have a good old-fashioned Homer Simpson Fridge Party. 

Homer: "I got the idea when I noticed the fridge was cold".

Before you get your loincloth in a twist, we did this for a mere minute, as long as it took for me to educate my partner about a pertinent Simpsons moment then take this photo. Marge: "Homer, the fridge wasn't meant to be used this way. Although I must say, it's certainly refreshing!"

I'm back in the Art Gallery, tuning under the watchful ear of the Crazy Cat Lady (back when she was a beautiful young woman). 

She has a lapful of kittens. Please refrain from pussy references. Credit where credit is due, this work is Rupert Bunny's A summer morning (circa 1908). Lots of little bunnies will find my blog now when they google Uncle Rupert.

A senior staffer asked had I seen the current touring exhibition: 'Rembrandt & the Dutch golden age - Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum'. No, I haven't. Would you like to? It's the last day today. Yes, please!

She whisked me through past all the snaking queues (including the queue to cloak my backpack and tool bag) I've never felt more VIPpy. Wonderful. The exhibition itself was stunning. Exceptional. I highly recommend it (in whichever major centre it is next unveiled). I visited the Rijksmuseum while on tour as a performer in 2008, when swathes of it were undergoing renovation.

Portrait of Lucas de Clercq, Frans Hals (circa 1635). Black might seem plain (and it is) but on certain levels it is quite the statement because dying fabric a decent Melbourne or Beatnik black was hard to do at the time. That's not a sling on his right arm but rather 'a fashionable accessory, seen in other early 17th-century portraits'. The next time you see a stupid impractical fashion item (and that will be tomorrow, I predict) please remember the Dutch Sling (not a euphemism - and not a sling).

Judith Leyster's The jolly pisspot (1629). The radiant subject is dressed as the Krusty the Clown of his era, Peekelharing (Pickled Herring). On the table are his smoking accoutrements, including a tub of hot coals. Most vocations and trades were not available to women. This painting was at first attributed to Frans Hals.

The detail in this small work, Ary de Vois' The merry fiddler (1660-80), is hard to describe.

I've known a few drunken fiddlers.

If I spent twenty lifetimes striving, I'd still never be able to paint such detail. The elaborate goblet, its reflections, the coloured shadow it casts on the fiddler's hand, the elixir-like contents, the light on his dirty fingernails. 

I've worked as a musician employee in a controlled environment where committees propagate pointless policies. Ubiquitous tipple bans notwithstanding, I imagine today's bloated bureaucracies would respond to this sight with the introduction of compulsory under-the-fingernail checks for all musicians entering the orchestra pit.

Pianos: A bridge too far

Natural light (but not direct sun) reached into this piano just well enough for me to notice a recalcitrant bridge pin. The force of the string load has managed to shunt the pin across and out of its hole. The affected wire can no longer meet the requisite 10-12° angle of deviation as it passes by that insubordinate little soldier.

Each bridge pin is drilled to overhang the string at a 21½° angle to attempt to keep the string in contact with the bridge. That's enough nerding it up with angles for today, class.

In quality pianos the top of the bridge is often capped with hardwood to increase the holding power of the bridge pins. Almost every aspect of this piano is degraded or a bit how's-your-father. It's no matter (for now) provided that the client is content and the piano is serviceable within the context of general domesticity. 

Just as well the old dear can flash some curvy upper thigh as a distraction.

Ardent readers may recall Gypsy, the cat-in-a-box.

When I returned for the next tuning, Gypsy lived on in memory and mantel photo.

New cat. Meet Lana...

...now get tuning.

What self-respecting piano has no white keys?

My notion that it should be impossible to make bad music on a piano with only black notes intimidated me so much that I was incapable of making any musical sense whatsoever. The possibilities in my head overwhelmed. Meanwhile the odd (and to me often irritating) stylings of my partner in piano pampering came into their own this day. His haunting sounds almost made sense to me, and eclipsed my efforts.

We suffered a spate of warranty resolution call-outs to help poor folk whose white keytops had detached. Several service calls were performed in clients' homes, but this day we nabbed the 52 white keys and bundled them off to my back deck for a pleasant (sort of!) al fresco glueing session. I love the smell of contact adhesive in the morning.

Any white keytops not kept with their specific wooden keystick had to be carefully re-matched. Piano keyboards are cut and formed from a single large straight-grained board (or series of joined boards). One might assume that every white key is of identical width, but they do subtly vary. 

OK, team, don't start glueing until you've got the best shuffle of the fifty-two that you can. Each keytop and keystick was cleaned of the old glue (which must have been bloody cheap, and barely misted on) then crosshatch-scored with a blade tip to ensure that the parts would adhere stably this time, then glued and clamped.

Inadequate (or poor quality) glue and no preparation of the surfaces resulted in dismayed and complainy clients. Yet many of these folk can (and do) continue to play on horrendous sounding untuned pianos. Playing with detached white keytops was a deal-breaker (fair enough) yet a kid may have practised for years (perhaps had their entire musical experience) on an untuned piano. 

They're regularly witnessed, believe me, folk who'll go to the ends of the earth to follow a warranty grievance process about a keytop chip that you need a jeweller's eyepiece and the light of five suns to see (legitimate enough, perhaps) who never tune.

All pianos need to be regularly tuned, but new pianos even more so. All manufacturers recommend a minimum of four tunings in the first year to stabilise the new strings. Then (and only then) you might opt for twice a year if you're fussy, or once a year if you're not. Increasingly, piano buyers are not given this advice by salespeople (lest it make them walk away from the showroom bling) and their new pride and joy is not tuned at all. The instruments sound laughable - by which I mean bloody disgraceful. 

We test clamps that are designed for this purpose.

Done. ALDI's four-fold tables (and the two-fold little brothers) are invaluable both in client homes and elsewhere when things get temporarily workshoppy. 

Here's another whites-only snap, but with a different motivation.

An esteemed (yet new) piano received many a keyboard regulation (every day) during the Piano Olympics. New parts (the felts and cloths in particular) are initially very unstable and compress and change a great deal as the piano is played. Here we made an adjustment to the black key height. Black keys should be set 12 to 12.5mm above the line of the (levelled) white keys.

Paper and thin cardboard washers (punchings) are used to regulate key height and key depth (how far each key goes down when you play). The paper and cardboard punchings go underneath cloth punchings (which compress a great deal at first, but can also expand when humidity increases).

Punching protocol in fine piano work dictates that the fewest punchings should be used (under the cloth punching) to achieve the required key height or depth - i.e. a smaller number of thicker pieces, rather than a huge amount of thin ones. They should be placed in order from thickest to thinnest (thick being closest to the keybed). In clunkerland it may be acceptable to be a little less particular.

Out in domesticity keyboards are not being finely regulated every day. They may never receive any attention at all, but from time to time they should. It is usual for key depth to increase with the rigours of playing over time. Paper and cardboard punchings go under the cloth punching. Here we see two very thick cards above, either some big rush, or a temporary test.

I love finding old-school home-made punchings. This one's unusual. I don't even know what language this is. You're welcome to reduce my ignorance. No sensible piano technician would be inclined to make their own paper punchings now, unless they were desperate to effect a keyboard regulation on a desert island piano.

I was so charmed by this collection (which we replaced) that I reached for a macro lens. Newspapers and magazines were often used - but here on top we see a ledger, or someone's diary. Paper punchings obviously degrade over time, there is absolutely no sense in re-using this lot. Commercially available punchings will last longer and be more stable than any cast-off classified ads or crossword pages. The large diameter punchings go under the front of the keys. The small ones regulate key height at the balance rail.

Pub piano intervention prevention. Putting the 'no' in 'piano'.

That extra screw above the extra lock looks a bit of a worry. I'm not sure this fallboard is able to be opened at all. No means no.

Just in case you perceive me as too cat-centric, here's a client's doggy. I'm all for an indoor on-leash policy. The greatest annoyance with many (not all) dogs is piercing yap-yap-yapping ripping the guts out of my ears. I've taken (at times) to wearing earplugs as I arrive. I have ridiculously sensitive ears.

A dog bed under the piano. Different piano, different dog. Great wheels (we fitted them so that this kitchen piano could be moved depending on the style of pet or party).

Another piano client's 18-year-old one-eared cat. Was her ear barked clean off with a series of searing staccato yaps? No, it was skin cancer.

My sensitive ears are no match for the dinning of 120 people!

Anzac Bridge. In hot pursuit or coincidental encounter?

Still on the bridge, the Caped Regulators greet mates Extreme Piano Removals.

Call 1300 074 266 for all your piano re-positioning needs.